Is Obama a Socialist? An Answer to Milos Forman
Just when I thought I had made a convincing argument that Obama was a politician whose outlook is akin to that of Europe’s left-wing social democrats and that the modern Democratic Party is the equivalent of Europe’s social-democratic parties, along comes director Milos Forman to argue the opposite in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.
Forman, most well-known in this country as the director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, is a Czech émigré who lived in Czechoslovakia from 1932 until 1968, thereby gaining first-hand experience of both Nazi and communist totalitarianism's opposition to freedom. He presents vivid anecdotes of what it was like to experience the jackboot of the secret police in his native land. He knows first-hand its horrors. Even TV interviews, he learned, had to be scripted, when one was interviewing a leader of the Communist Party or the state.
No one can gainsay Forman’s knowledge of totalitarian regimes. He speaks the truth. But then he performs an agile sleight of hand that goes like this: Totalitarianism of the communist fashion worked in a certain way. That was socialism. What took place in communist Czechoslovakia does not occur in the U.S. Our president is not the equivalent of any of the Czech communists he knew so well. Therefore, Obama is not a socialist.
Forman accuses conservatives -- he names Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh -- of calling Obama a socialist. He writes:
They falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism.
In making that argument, Forman reveals his own confusion, and in effect says that to say Obama is a socialist is to say he is a Marxist-Leninist totalitarian. Of course Obama is NOT a communist. He is an elected leader of a politically democratic republic. He is constrained in policies he would like to implement by a Congress and a vigorous Republican opposition. Nevertheless, a strong case has been made -- here at PJM and in other conservative journals of opinion and in various serious books -- that Barack Obama favors and pursues policies that are indeed the equivalent of redistributionist socialist measures favored today, for example, by François Hollande and his new government in France.
To make this case hardly “cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism,” as Forman claims. The problem is that the social-democratic governments in Europe that Forman claims only favor “government provision of social insurance and health care” have their own serious problems. Most conservatives favor a social safety net, adequate health care, and other common-sense measures. What they do oppose is the limitless welfare state that seemingly never ends in its quest to further extend its grasp, in a manner that produces a whole new set of problems and brings modern economies to a grinding halt.
The problem of the social welfare states in Europe was addressed most succinctly by Josef Joffe in a review of the late Tony Judt’s book Ill Fares the Land, in which Judt argued for real social democracy in the United States. Joffe, editor and publisher of the German newspaper Die Zeit, wrote the following:
The central problem with “Ill Fares the Land” is a classic fallacy of the liberal-left intelligentsia, more in Europe than in the United States. Call it the “Doctor State Syndrome.” The individual is greedy, misguided or blind. The state is the Hegelian embodiment of the right and the good that floats above the fray. But the state does not. It is a party to the conflict over “who gets what, when and how,” to recall Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics. It makes its own pitch for power; it creates privileges, franchises and clienteles. This is why it is so hard to rein in, let alone cut back. The modern welfare state creates a new vested interest with each new entitlement. It corrupts as it does good.
Joffe also points to the failures of the very welfare states in Europe, like Sweden and France, that American left-liberals have extolled for quite some time. The West, according to the social democrats, has succumbed to greed, egotism, and to false free-market prophets like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. “The wages of sin [to the social-democrats],” Joffe puts it, “are the loss of community, trust, equality and social justice. And the true god...is European-style social democracy à la Scandinavia.” But, as he adds,
the market is the best information system known to man: it has millions broadcasting in real time what is offered and what is wanted at what price. This is why capitalism learns from its crises, whereas the Soviet Union just accumulated them until it collapsed.
Take the case of Sweden. Joffe notes:
Remember Sweden in the 1990s, until then the emblem of democratic socialism, where the state grabbed more than one-half of G.D.P.? It pumped up a real-estate bubble in the late 1980s, which burst in the early 1990s, driving G.D.P. down by 5 percent and unemployment up to 12 percent. In 1994, the budget deficit soared to 13 percent. This was not America in 2008, but a statist country that fits [the social-democrats] dream to a T.
America’s preeminent socialist leader in the 1980s was the late Michael Harrington, who carried on as the spokesman for social democracy, a post he inherited from his predecessors, Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. Harrington was well-aware that the path to socialism, in which he ardently believed, was through continued extension of the American welfare state. He became a vigorous supporter of a meaningless bill passed by Congress in 1978 called the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which stated that it was the policy of the United States to strive to attain a full employment economy.
Testifying before Congress in defense of the act, the dying Senator Humphrey asked Harrington: “Is my bill socialism?” The socialist leader responded, “It isn’t half that good.” His point was that socialism needed liberalism as a focal point from which to grow. As Harrington argued at the time, by laying out the principle that it was the duty of the state to create full employment, socialists could build upon that to move liberal supporters to advocate more extensive social-democratic programs that would challenge the hegemony of capitalist social relations, making it easier to advance real socialist measures at a future moment.
What Forman ignores, and does not really address, is that Barack Obama came into politics from the precincts of the Harringtonian left wing. He was a member in Chicago of the socialist New Party, which grew out of the activism of the Democratic Socialists of America, which Harrington led. His past, ignored but addressed in particular by Stanley Kurtz and now by Paul Kengor, was that of the sectarian left wing of the 1970s and '80s.
Forman might not see “much of a socialist in Mr. Obama,” but he also writes that he does not see “signs of that system in this great nation.” That is because Mr. Forman is confusing Stalinism with social democracy. With that as his standard, he can easily ignore all signs of socialist policies and programs favored by Barack Obama. Like the Marxists, Obama said four years ago that we were on the verge of a “fundamental transformation” of the United States. What did he mean by that, if not his hope that the United States would soon become a nation more similar to the social-democratic welfare states of Europe?
So Milos Forman is correct when he says “really existing socialism,” as the Marxists used to call the Stalinist regimes, was “predatory” and not merely centralized government. But the programs advocated by the sectarian “Left” today are also advocated “in the name of ‘social justice,’” just as Forman writes the Leninists used as the reason for their enterprise.
One can argue whether or not the Affordable Care Act, as ObamaCare is called, is a stepping stone to an American social democracy. Certainly, were he still with us, Harrington would be the first to endorse it on those grounds, just as he used that argument to get his comrades to rally around the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. The difference is that Harrington was upfront about his goals, and proud to use the name “socialist” to describe the programs he supported. Today’s Left, however, prefers to hide its agenda, and instead use amorphous terms like “progressive” to hide their true purposes.
Socialism does not have to be the Stalinist totalitarian variety for one to find reasons to oppose it. There are plenty of sufficient grounds even if it is of the democratic variety. And to call Obama’s programs “socialist” is more than reasonable. I’m surprised that Milos Forman does not understand that.
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